This is a little harder than it my seem. Academics debate on the best way to organize religion in a stream line fashion due to apparent coherency, differences, mergers, schisms, origins, mobilization, culture and ethnicity. So this list is more of a hybrid of the characteristics and classifications. I will try to simplify the broad strokes best I can until I find a comprehensive comparison that suits my purpose.
Three broad category’s
Indigenous religions: smaller, culture or nation-specific religions. examples Voodoo (Louisianan, Hatian, etc.), Shinto (Japanese), Rastafarianism (Jamaican), Judaism (Jew), Zoroastrianism (Iranian-Persian), Sikhism (Punjabi).
New religious movements: recently developed faiths. Notice “Movements” in this category. It may be a new religion, merger of faiths or very often a break in distinction with a pre-existing larger religion. It is worded this way to distinguish itself from the word cult which has a number of definitions, preconceptions, and is usually derogatory.
Note that even as these categories are interchangeable.
In reference to god(s), deities, distinguishes between good, evil or neutral gods. Personification of god(s), of the universe, self as god, or aspersion to be god like or as god. And concern or unconcern for the affairs of man. This is a nice simple link to different kinds of Theism.
It can be difficult at times to distinguish science and the theology of atheism, for instance Darwin and Newton are reportedly devout theists while their science give fuel for atheistic argument.
Very simply put the argument between theists and atheists end at burden of proof. Even though arguments like Occam’s razor isn’t definitive or absolute, in general it is left to the theist to give rebuttal through apologetics.
Agnosticism: Without knowledge. On the fence or slightly to one side or the other. Three basic types:
1. Agnostic atheism: Does not believe but offers no argument to nonexistence
2. Agnostic theism: believes but offers no argument of existence.
Secular humanism or just humanism is probably the most well-known of irreligious group that doesn’t use religion or the supernatural to define morality but rather ethics, reason and philosophical naturalism. Note that some religions, particularly in the far east have room for irreligious thinking.
Morality: Is defined by various concepts and should not be confused with ethics, which are characterized by more philosophical and social means rather than religious. Morality in religion is assumptive and has more to do with the relationship between the man, his soul, community and god. Ethics will be covered in the philosophy section. These are three basic types.
1. Absolute morality: Morals are given by or inspired by God and cannot be changed. Truth is truth. Pure and not a mixture. Not diluted. uncompromising. examples: Christianity, Islam, Judaism.
2. Relative morality: Isn’t given by god per say (unless you are god ) so much as it is decided apron by the individual. His decision on what to except as moral may be novel or derived from an assortment of sources. Agin, remember this is religious morality distinguished from ethical theory. examples: Eclectics, spiritualists, various neo-pagans like Wicca, and esotericism
3. Consequential morality: Has less to do with the nature of good and evil as being derived from self or god but rather consequences of actions or inaction on self, others, and environment as being the determining factor of good and evil. examples: Buddhism and Hinduism.
Sorry these links take you to ethical definitions I will try to find more appropriate links.
Abrahamic religions are derived from Abraham and are middle eastern in origin. These are the main four but there are others.
1. Judaism First of the Abrahamic religions. About the covenant and relationship between God and Israel (Jews). Prime texts are the Torah, Mishnah, and the Talmud. Emphasizes the singleness of God and good living through the tenets of the faith. Has significant influence on philosophical ethics. There are three main groups Orthodox, Conservative, and reform. Along with others throughout history the differences range from the absolute to the mystical to the secular.
2. Christianity Jesus is the son of God and savior of humanity (Christ). Was crucified and resurrected. For mainstream Christianity Jesus is fully man and fully God and emphasizes the Trinity: God the father, God the son, and God the spirit is still monotheistic as these are the personifications or three parts of one essence. Was founded by Jesus and Peter and was built by Paul and the apostles. Main text is the Christian Bible which is the new testament and ancient Hebrew bible. The Broadest groups are Roman catholic, Eastern orthodox and protestant which to one degree or another have theological foundations in the ecumenical councils.
3. Islam The one true religion composed of earlier misinterpreted revelations to the world. Is not contradictory. Muslims are called to submit and serve the one true God (Allah). Its Prime text the Qur’an was given to Muhammad (messenger of God) verbatim by God through the arch angel Gabriel. Other important texts are the Sunnah and Hadith. Muhammad is the last prophet. Emphasizes the five pillars of faith which are testimony, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. especially among the Shia and Sufis an emphasis is put on The Great Jihad which basically is the idea that one should not be satisfied with him self and strive with all his might to purify him self in the way of God. Three main branches are the Sunni, Shia, and Sufi.
4. Bahá’í faith The unity of God, man, and religion. One God omnipresent and eternal (conscientious of creation) has revealed himself to man through many messengers (manifestations of God) like Moses, Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha, and Krishna. These massagers established “lesser covenants” or religions to reveal God to people in a way they could understand him at that time and place for the purpose of developing and transforming the character of mankind towards the greater convent which is universal and endless. All men are equal, all religions are of the same god. emphasises unity and peace with man and the world.
Dharmic religions are derived from dharma which is the way or path in relationship to man and the natural order or law of the universe, phenomena, and the transformation or purification of the human being. Originating out of India. The distinctions are subtle but are essentially composed of similar philosophy.
Hinduism Refered to as the oldest religion in the sence that it is not organized like Mideast or western religions but primordial in nature. Sometimes excluded as a religion and called a way of life instead. Is simply beyond traditional western thinking and paradigms. Is extremely diverse in tradition and instead of a rigid set of beliefs it is more intellectual and philosophical seeing the world from a verity of points of view. Morality is defined through Karma (cycle of action and reaction). No eternal punishment or reward. Includes a verity of theist perspectives(mono, poly, atheist, heno, pan, etc) all depending on the particular school of thought. Emphasizes that the human being must find his own way and his soul (Atman) is eternal and not separate from, but is a part of, not indistinct from the great soul (Braham.) When this is realized by the individual he achieves moksha which is the freedom or release from samsara (The cycle of birth and rebirth). Free will and destiny are coherent and ones purpose in life is to come to oneness in God or the universe and with all things.
Buddhism Based on the teachings of Buddha (awakened one) who was enligented, knowing the way to end suffering by ending ignorance(misinterpretation of the nature of reality) through Pratītyasamutpāda or the concept that all things are interdependent and connected and by denying self so one can achieve nirvana or moksha and is the end of suffering with the union of Braham (God). Important distinction in rebirth. The soul is not independent and unchanging but a complete conscienceness with universal consciences. In other words, in Hinduism “your” soul reincarnates and is still your eternal unchanging soul but in Buddhism your soul is not your true self. Everything is everything so the soul is everything in a collective conscience and when you are reborn you spirit has been transmigrated and is something new. Emphasizes Four Immeasurable Minds” of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Equanimity is in reference to the Middle Way which was discovered by Buddha before his enlightenment.
Jainism historically one of the oldest religions in the world dating back somewhere around 7th-9th centurys B.C. The etymology is in reference (conqueror) or one who has conquered himself. Non-violence and self control is the duty of adherents and is the way to liberation from rebirth. The universe has always been and will always be, it doesn’t need a being to keep it together. It emphasizes spiritual independence and the equality of all life and that truth is not absolute but instead there are many realities and each reality or perspective of reality is part of a whole. Sometimes things are, and sometimes they aren’t, sometimes they exist and sometimes they don’t, sometimes they are compressible and sometimes they are not. But all things are correct and incorrect in that we only can see part of a whole. The soul by its very nature belongs to infinaint purity, knowledge, energy, perspective, and bliss. But the soul is curupted by karmic law and through asceticism can burn up any remaining karma to achieve liberation.
Sikhism Founded by Guru Nanak its prime text is the Guru Granth Sahib which is a collection of writings from Nanak and the ten gurus. emphasizes the oneness of God and that the spiritual life and common life are tied together. The adherent should take control of the five thieves which are the pitfalls of humanity (lust, rage, greed, attachment, and ego.) by employing the five virtues truth, compassion, contentment, humility, and love. It is these virtues that bring us to oneness and reunite with god (literally the mergence into God.) Ik Onkar and what we say God aren’t really enterexangeable, God to the Sikh is a one constant and is unknowable by man. However this one constant is omnipresent and through meditation one can achieve enligetment which is the awareness of the inner self and the omnipresence. The perceptual world is illusionary and truth or real reality is when we are reunited with the one constant.
Also Daoism. These are East Asian religions that are harder to define and distinguish from one another as much of the same language is used but have different definitions. In general however we are dealing with force which is the universe and what drives the balance and harmony of natural law. Virtue is the acting of the force through man, nature and the universe in respect to each other or the flow through all things…. Does this sound familiar Star wars fans?
Taoism The way or principles of living in harmony of Tao. I cannot define for you what Tao is because any definition is incomplete and only a partial truth, instead the divinity of the Tao is inside you to discover. So Taoism is individualistic in nature. But it is commonly expressed as the flow of the universe and explicitly that the universe is both simutainsouly the source of all things and the action of all things. Te is the action or practice of living with Tao. The three jewels or virtues of Taoism are compassion, moderation, and humility. Emphisizes being free from desire and selfishness while living a simple life. There are a number of texts that have their enfluence which usually describes how to live simply and distinguishes wisdom as not nessaraly intelectual insite into nature but rather the self discovery of living in harmony and in the flow of it. In other words wisdom is not expressed so much with words as by action. Wu-Wei is an important consept. Means action without action. (yes the gaming consoul is in refrence here) What action with out action means is if you try to assert you own will you will disrupt the natural flow of the universe but by being one with the universe and apart of its natural flow then the universe and you are free to move in the natural flow together, so by not acting agenst the flow the flow takes you where the flow will go. Think of a river and fighting the current or riding it. This is what Taoists call naturalness which is regarded as the central virtue.
Confucianism Is the represented in the sayings of Confucius which is a philosophical system to deal with ethics, social, political issues. Morality here isn’t religious so much as it what is best for the state and community. It emphasizes practicality and the importance of family and community while discouraging spending time on religious affairs. Humans are teachable and perfectable by their personal and communial efforts of self cultivation and self creation. Focuses on obtaining and keeping viture in the form of altruism, being humane, living etheicaly, and maintaining social etiquette.
Shinto Is a Japanese animist way of life. Prehistoric rituals and practices in Japan that has mixed other Taoist religions and is the way of the Kami. Kami is often referd to Gods but probably more closely resembles what we think of as lesser deities, or spirits. These spirits can be deities, souls of people or objects, or the forces of nature. Instead of the usaual consept of God here the kami and humans live and exist together in the same world. The earliest texts are Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, which are an assortment local mythologys and lore. With the inclusive nature of Shinto ther is no real definition or universal guidelines but was a political creation to distinguish ancient japanise spiritualism from foreign religions. The coherency of Shinto is in its culture and a few basic beliefs ruted in ancient myth and superstition. Impurity is caused by wrong deeds which is adverse to purity and leads to poor fortune or bad luck. An adherent should under go regular ritual purification rites to align himself with better fortune. Negitive outlook on death and the spirit goes to the other side of a river to a place called Yomi. Its a dark and dreary place similar to Hades by crossing the river stix. But some individuals that are exepmlotory such as great heors can go to another place and become deities the consept is similar to Greek Elysium. This is where ansestorial worship becomes important.
Ethnic and Folk religions. New religions
There is often little distinction between Ethnic and Folk religions. Just refer to indigenous religions at the top. One distinction I should make however just because it is ethnic doesn’t mean that it is secluded and many new religions come from old ones. Here are a few examples.
Some tribal religions from Africa were transported to the Americas.
Many Americans of any particular ethnic origins identify themselves with religions traditionally from a different ethnic group. For example an Irish-American who adheres to Buddhism.
Some forms of Christianity, though connected to the global version it has ethnic distinctions like the Assyrian church or the Coptic church.
New Christian denominations for example may be classified anywhere in the church-sect continuum by a verity of opposing argument’s. There are numerous other world religions that have denominations, sects and cults of their own.
Paganism is a broad term, whose modern definition is unclear and debated, that seems to be unfavored by scholars due to being historically a derogatory for European tribal religions used by Christians, similar to infidel for Muslims, gentile for Jews or barbarian for ancient Greeks. The word itself has a long and interesting etymology. Meaning no offence I use it to introduce the four basic types and the revival of these old religions in modern times.
(Note: The link I provided may be incorrect about its relation to ethnic and folk religions. My argument is Saxon and Alemanni may be identified as distinct ethnic groups but are also part of a larger cultural identity German.) (Etymology: Alemanni was a specific collection of tribes just north of the alps, French and Spanish use this tribe to identify all Germans, whereas in English we use the Latin word to get “German” the ancient roman name for everyone north of the Alps carrying a big stick.) I’ll remove all this gibber jabber when I find a better link.
Leaving other definitions aside these are the four basic themes.
1. Shamanism Is a huge umbrella for many many ancient and pre Abrahamic religions. The earliest man are reported to hold shamanistic traditions. The shaman is the spiritual leader of usualy a tribal or ethnic community that has direct access to various spirits and deities by entering to a trance like state after performing a ritual or series of rituals. His purpose to for diviation and healing. Phisical illness is often the root of an evil sprit so the shaman will enter the spirit to either plead with the evil spirit to let go of his victom or to plead to other good spirits to help. The healing comes when the needs or wants of the spirits have been satisified. He may also go to the spirit world to devine the furture and solve social problems that trouble a community or individual.
2. Pantheism Is the belief that the universe is all encompising and one with its self. God is not known as a personality but rather the everything that is everytnig. Thus knowledge of everything and the universes singleness is discovered within the individual.
3. Animism Is the belief that all living things have a spirt and very often inanimate objects do as well. Typicaly indigenous and has a verity of interpertations and relationships with these spirits.
4. Polytheism Is the belief of many Gods and deties of greater and lesser importance, each having their own ambitions or neglect of man. Each God or deity are reverd in their own way with their own rites and rituals. Ancient Greed mythology is is a well known form of polytheism.
Revivalist Witches or more currently known as new pagan. Neo-paganism is hard to peg down a solid definition like Daoism, but basically its bringing back to life the old ways from typically European origins but not necessarily. Wicca is probably the best known under the neo-pagan umbrella. Also it should be noted that the religious forms above are not exclusive to neo-paganism depending on your definition. Shinto for example is animistic but is it pagan? Depends on who you ask as with pretty much everything else on this page.
Wicca Another contrast to organized religion its adherents may follow specifaly any number of traditions or an inclusive form of these verities. Though there is no solid definition for theology though duotheist positions are common where feminism and masculine complement one another in the from of the Goddess and the horned god. Simmilar to the yin and yang in Daoism. A distinction can be made that these two Gods are the personifications of a greater God head or Pantheist version of a universal essence. Or they could be just two of many manafastiotions of a pantheist veiw through other gods, deiteies and lesser spirits. Often the Goddess is considerd the most important of the two as she is the prime mover or mother of all things. Magick is often spelled with the K to distinguish it form stage magic. It is not allways essential to spirituality but is very common. Magick is pactices of maliplitaing the forces of nature by ritualizing or reflecting on supernatural laws which the universe is governed by. Wiccans don’t have a universal dogmatic code of morality but many follow the wiccan rede which says do what you will but harm no one. Another important concept for many is the law of three fold which is similar to karma but distinct in that what you do benevolent or malevolent in nature is returned with three times the force. The idea of good and evil are less distincet but is reflected by what is harmfull or helpful. It is an interesting note to see how peganisim even before the new pegan movement has influenced western culture. Most people I think know that western Christian holidays are a hybrid of traditional Christian festivals and observences with pegan traditions. But many of the local and secular traditions have pagan roots like Mayday for school children. One final note is because of the use of the pentagram many confuse Wicca with satenism but should not be. The later has a very distinct and different world view from most other religions and this will be my only comment on it.
A few more features of religion to be aware of
Spiritualism Is the relationship between man and spirits. A medum is one who has direct contact and communication with spirits from the spirit world. God is an infinant intelligence and the universe is the expression of this intelligence. The soul of humans persist after death and can continue to learn and grow through a series of hierarchical spheres. Some modern Christian denomonitions were established and founded under spiritualist consecpts which reject traditional Godly morality, heaven, and hell. Any number or shamanistic or primal religions are good examples though the deffination in practice may be different.
Esotericism Of a rare and higher understanding of knowledge and truth exclusive to a few. Means compound within or inner truth layerd by cosmic realities. Fundumently deals with the theory of correspondence which is the medium by which all things are connected and communication between man and the universe can be achieved. Through rites, rituals, angles, visions and meditation man can redscove these corespondences which has been lost over the ages by mans neglect of the spiritual. The universe is a living orginsim that we are all apart of. Esoteric ideologies are typicaly found among the mistic denomitions of larger religions. Examples are Christian Mysticism, Freemasonry, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Magic, Mesmerism, Taoism, and numerology.
Eclecticism Is the world view of world views. There isn’t a rigid or organized difination of truth but rather draws on a veriety or all world views as being part of the whole. Its implications are as wide and diverce as there are religions in the world. Good examples are Hinduism or Bahai Faith.
mysticism Hystoricaly a large and diverce set of diffinations but more recently has come to be the union or oneness with an absoulout and infinant God. Implores a veritey of magics, rituals, spiritualists, and supernatural elements. Abrahamic religions tend to reject mysticisism but they all have denomitions, sects or cults that embrace mystic world views and practices. Eastern religions of course assume to a degree that mysticisim is just part of nature.
Wraping it up
Because religion is such a powerfully ingrained aspect of the human experience, it affects much more of our daily life than we sometimes admit or are aware of. You don’t have to be a theologists to study religion and there are a number of other fields of study that are forced to consider the effects on religion on that particular field. A Breif history of time written by Stephen Hawkins, who is an atheist mentions god it seems on nearly every page is a good example of how physics and cosmology are effected by religion.
Here the main sciences that also deal with religion under the broad field of the Study of religion.